Google Android

The first commercial mobile phone to use the Google Android operating system -- the T-Mobile G1 -- has been released. But how good is the OS itself?

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Google Android
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Pros

  • Lots of apps already available (many of them free), openness of platform

Cons

  • Only one Android phone on the market so far

Bottom Line

Google Android is an exciting development in the world of mobile operating systems. It's not so much what it can do right now, as what the world's application developers can create when they get their hands on the code.

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Not unlike Apple's iPhone, Google Android allows users to flick the screen to scroll through items — so long as the hardware supports this aspect of the operating system's functionality. The T-Mobile G1, and therefore Google Android, also supports the "long press", however. So Android phone users can hold a finger to the screen to open up a menu. For example, holding a finger on a photograph opens a menu offering options such as the ability to send the photo to someone else.

Something else Android and the iPhone OS have in common: a browser built on Webkit, the same technology that drives Apple's Safari browser. Webkit is, of course, the basis of Google's other big recent software: Google Chrome. Indeed, Google execs have referred to Android's browser as "Chrome-light".

In a Google Android browser window, a user can drag a small box around the website and the content behind the box is magnified for easier viewing on the small screen.

Google Android also includes a dedicated search button. When users press it, a Google search bar pops up on the screen.

But it's in applications that Google Android really shines. The T-Mobile G1 ships with many Google applications, including Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube and GTalk — and there are loads more to add from the Android store, which is integrated into the OS. You can already find fun and useful programs from Android, many of them free. And applications are easy to find and download.

Google Android is truly expandable. An icon on the desktop sends you right to the Google Android apps page, where applications roll across a panel at the top of the screen. You use your thumb on the touch screen to make the panel move left or right for more choices and then tap an app's icon to choose it.

Out of the box Google Android phone users can read Word, PDF and Excel documents but initially at least won't be able to synch Microsoft Exchange mail with their phone. The OS is also integrated with the Amazon MP3 store, allowing users to easily buy digital music.

Another important aspect of Google Android that bears close comparison to Apple and the iPhone: software licensing. Google is about to open-source the Android platform. That means that any developer, in addition to being able to write applications for the software, can also modify the platform. So expect plenty more applications to launch over the coming months and years.

The Google Android launch event featured a video interview with a few developers, some of whom won a contest Google sponsored for developers of Android applications. They talked up the importance of openness — perhaps a jab at iPhone. They stressed that developing for Android is free and that any application can be added to the Android application store. By contrast, iPhone developers have to buy the SDK (software development kit), albeit for a low price, and Apple determines which applications will go into the App Store.

One of our favourite Android applications that's available now is Google Maps Street View which, on the T-Mobile G1 at least, allows a person to view a snapshot of an entire street scene at any of several US cities.

We chose 42nd street in New York City at the Avenue of the Americas from Google Maps, and once the information downloaded from Chunghwa Telecom's mobile network, we were able to view the street on the T-Mobile G1's screen. It's cool.

There are three ways to navigate a street scene using Google Android on T-Mobile's G1, the first Android phone.

The most fun is to hit the "compass" function on your Android phone and move it around by hand. You pan up and view the screen as if your handset is the LCD viewfinder on a digital camera, and you're looking at building tops or into trees. Pan down and you can see if anyone dropped some coins on the street. Pan around for an entire 360 degree view of the street from where you are, including taxis, buildings, or a guy walking down the street eating a sandwich.

We can't think of any useful reasons to use the Google Android's Street View — Google Maps is enough to get you where you want to go — but it sure is fun.

The other two ways to navigate on Street View are by using the T-Mobile G1's touch screen to look around or the trackball at the bottom of the phone.

Google is still expanding the Street View database to include more cities.

To test out another Google Android application, we picked ShopSavvy — bargain hunters will love this program.

ShopSavvy turns your Google Android phone's camera into a price tag scanner. It starts to scan immediately when ShopSavvy is on, no need to snap a photo or anything. Just run a red line in the middle of the viewfinder over a barcode and it scans the information.

It took us a few tries to scan the barcode of a book, but once we got it, it only took several seconds to navigate to a site with a book review and other information, as well as suggestions on where to buy.

The ShopSavvy application only took about 40 seconds to download. We also downloaded Pac-Man, which took about 33 seconds.

Struggling for Christmas presents this year? Check out our Christmas Gift Guide for some top tech suggestions and more.

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